Thomas Merton: Seeing the Salvation of God

For several months I have been feeling diffuse, totally out of control of my life. Tension and anxiety can rule during such periods, and it’s no fun. I sleep with the television on to block out the runaway train of my ruminations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it makes things worse.

I had been seeking some good wholesome, even spiritual, reading to put myself back together, to get rid of that feeling of being a disassembled jigsaw puzzle. But what should I read? Nothing I found in my own library or on Amazon seemed to be what I needed right now. Then a friend of mine gave me this book, The Intimate Merton—a selection of his journal writings from just before he entered the monastery in 1941 until his untimely death in 1968.

Merton was a monk of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance at the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he went by his religious name, Fr. Louis. He was born into a cultured family and spent a great deal of his childhood in Europe. He was a student at Oxford and Columbia and a gifted writer.

Merton is perhaps most famous for his confessions, The Seven-Storey Mountain, his story of conversion to Catholicism, which was published early in his life. This is how I first made my acquaintance with his work in college, but since then I’ve been unable to dig in too much to his other books, until this volume of journals came along.

He was no stranger to controversy. Even in the “anything goes” Sixties a monk was playing with fire by dabbling in Eastern religions. In about 1965 the Abbot gave Merton permission to live by himself in a hermitage separate from the rest of the monastery, which occasioned some murmuring amongst the more traditionally-minded. Documentation of irregular behavior—he did in fact fall in love with a nurse who cared for him after an operation and stayed in touch with her for some time—has almost certainly derailed any possibility of his ever becoming a canonized saint in the Catholic Church, though the Episcopalians celebrate a feast in his honor on December 10, the date of his death.

Merton was an honest soul, which is to say that he was a tortured one. His private journals illustrate constant agonizing over whether or not he was doing the right thing. This only seemed to get worse with age. Some people can’t stand indecision, but I think this is what makes Merton so readable. There is an intellectual humility that appeals to anyone who is not a self-assured jackass. Bertrand Russell seems to be his agnostic or atheist counterpart. It certainly isn’t Richard Dawkins. “Humility is more important than zeal,” Merton wrote on December 11, 1961.

Like many great figures of history, Merton’s work is needlessly circumscribed by the human tendency to shoehorn everyone into a category, to decide if he’s a This or a That—and then to embrace or oppose him accordingly. This does great violence to thinkers, even to many of the people we admire the most. Merton is often considered a darling of the Catholic Left, and certainly he was liberal about many things. But I wonder how many people who fixate on these things know, for instance, that Merton carved out his own path with respect to the reforms and upheavals that were taking place in the Catholic Church in the wake of the II Vatican Council. The point, I guess, is that he deserves to be taken on his own terms, like everyone else does. Off with the tyranny of intellectual collectivization!

As a musician, I found a number of journal entries that could be set to music. His recounting of the fire watch on July 4, 1952 is particularly stirring, in which he intertwines a description of the rounds of the monastery’s night watchman with a love song to God that serves as a precious mirror image of the work of St. Francis:

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.

As an owl, this appeals to me very much. “The night,” says Merton, “was never made to hide sin but only to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play among the stars.”

Young Fr. Louis winds his way through the monastery, and eventually up to its peak, the steeple, from which he can seeing the rolling hills of the countryside, where he meditates on the beauty of creation and what he calls God’s unanswered question—hints of Leonard Bernstein?

Lord God of this Great night: do you see the woods? Do You hear the rumor of their loneliness? Do You behold their secrecy? Do You remember their solitudes? Do You see that my soul is beginning to dissolve like wax within me?

“It must be nice to sit around and think all the time,” some of you must be saying. Merton clears this up: solitude will force you to face all your faults, all the ugly stuff of life, in a very real way. I have heard as much from other monks. And look at all the distraction people indulge just to avoid having to think about anything. That’s what television is for, after all. In a very real sense, Merton, in all his solitude was more alive than many of us will ever be. This kind of life is not meant for everyone, but it’s the only way to live for those who are destined for it.

This is one of those books that changes the tempo of the reader’s life. It’s impossible to spend much time with Merton before he rubs off on you. I found myself cultivating little shelters of silence, slowing down my pace in general, stopping to enjoy little beauties that we’re usually tempted to dismiss as insignificant. And then I stopped needing the television to put me to sleep at night, and I’m even considering cutting back on the caffeine. Well, maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

More significantly, though, I have developed more of an aptitude for patience while reading this book. Most thoughtful people grant Merton a certain measure of respect, and yet his whole life seems unresolved. One of the debates which is had about him is whether or not he was ceasing to be Christian in favor of Buddhism toward the end of his life. (His journal entries do not bear this out, in my opinion.) His life is one big, aimless journey through the desert. In fact, Merton spends a great deal of time in his journals talking about Bl. Conrad, a Cistercian monk who was quite literally a wanderer. Conrad did not appeal to him early in life, but as he grew older he started to see the value of his story, and he ceased to expect his life to be a microcosm of the Whig Theory of History—a constant ascent uninterrupted by setbacks, detours, and even deliberate changes.

I have this same frustration. We all do, I suppose, and experience teaches us to chill out about it. “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans,” John Lennon said. And that’s okay. We are meant to live life as human beings, and not as online dating profiles where everyone has a master plan to be well fed and happy into eternity, working in the amazing career that they envisioned for themselves at the ripe old age of nineteen while living in an eight bedroom house in West Chester.

The same concept applies to all of God’s unanswered questions. There are puzzles which we will never be able to solve, and other puzzles that we will assemble and put back together a hundred times in the course of our life. These are not failures; these attempts are some of the greatest joys of human existence. Certainty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it is hard to find someone who is certain who is not also an insufferable jerk. (Mea culpa.) So I am content with the questions and enough space to contemplate them all. As Merton himself said, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.”

Maybe this makes the most sense when we consider one final thing. Merton offers a meditation on the sentence, “Be vigilant, and you will see the salvation of God.” He makes an important distinction here: This does not be mean to be patient while you wait for the salvation of God to arrive. Rather, be vigilant, so that you can see the salvation of God which is already here and which we often miss because we aren’t looking.  How often do we waste energy actively looking for something when what we need is right under our noses, but we don’t see it because we aren’t looking in the right place? I suppose that an important part of humility is being willing to sit tight and allow the unanswered questions to answer themselves.

Outside the Cafe, Summer Fades

Bright blue sky. A persistent breeze.

The stop sign sways on the electrical pole—it has its own rhythm. No metre—nature doesn’t have metre, but durations, like Messiaen, or ancient Greek music, or Bergsonian duration.

A mosquito bites my right index finger, compliments of all the recent rain.

A row house sits across the street, verdantly bedecked in bucolic splendor, even while the second story is covered in cheap gray siding, marring the beautiful maroon cornice.

Cars drive by vomiting noise from their radios. Sometimes they actually stop at the intersection, and occasionally one yields to a pedestrian.

The shadows lengthen early. Summer fades. Are those the last roses of the year over there?

Everything is transitory. Perhaps that is depressing. Perhaps not.

Maybe it’s even liberating. Maybe we are not bogged down by the material world after all.

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